The Problem


  • Our prisons and jails are filled with people with mental illnesses. There are at least 8,000 people with mental illnesses in prisons operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections. There are at lest 3,000 people with mental illness in Illinois’ ninety nine county jails, including approximately 2,000 in the Cook County Jail.


  • It is difficult, if not impossible, to provide decent and human mental health services in prisons and jails. Prisons and jails lack the resources to attract and retain sufficient qualified professionals to address the mental health needs of inmates. Correctional staff are often not trained to work with persons with serious mental illnesses.


  • Prisons and jails are frequently violent, overcrowded, understaffed and chaotic places. Persons with mental illnesses are frequently victimized by other inmates. Moreover, when untreated or inappropriately treated for their illnesses, they frequently violate prison or jail rules and sometimes commit additional crimes. These behaviors commonly lead to discipline and lengthened terms of imprisonment.


  • Prisons and jails in Illinois have frequently been sued for failing to provide adequate mental health services.   For example, the Illinois Department of Corrections is facing a class action making this claim and seeking dramatic (and expensive) improvements in mental health services. Cook County Jail is signatory to two consent decrees requiring comprehensive mental health services.   Prison and jails across the state have been sued successfully for failure to provide mental health services to individual inmates and for failing to prevent suicides by persons with mental illnesses.


  • Every year thousands of persons with serious mental illnesses are released from prisons and jails without having been successfully treated for their mental illnesses. Whether or not their illnesses have been appropriately treated in these institutions, most will not be linked to appropriate treatment when released.


The Causes


  • At least 250.000 Illinoians have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and millions of others have other serious mental illnesses. Thousands have returned from military service in Iraq or Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder.


  • As Illinois reduced the capacity of its state-operated mental hospitals from 33,000 in 1955 to 1,200 in 2015, it failed to fund or provide adequate community mental health services for it citizens. Private hospitals have also reduced their inpatient capacity.


  • Private insurance has typically failed to provide adequate coverage for mental illnesses. Only recently have the federal and state governments adopted “parity” laws, which require that mental illnesses be afforded the same level of coverage as other health conditions. Unfortunately, enforcement of these laws remains problematic.


  • Many persons with mental illnesses who end up in the criminal justice system had not received mental health services prior to their arrest because they did not have health insurance, were not eligible for or had not enrolled in Medicaid and other public funding for mental health services is inadequate.


  • Medicaid in Illinois does not provide for minimally adequate mental health services due to inadequate payment rates for providers and the failure to cover many necessary, evidence-based services.


  • Serious, untreated mental illnesses frequently result in a downward economic spiral due to loss of employment and loss of family support.


The Solutions


  • Create and expand effective mental health diversion programs including:
  • Police Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs
  • Crisis intervention programs where law enforcement can bring for treatment and other services persons witth mental illnesses and substance use problems who have been charged with low-level crimes
  • Bond-court diversion programs
  • Problem solving courts including drug courts, mental health courts and veterans courts
  • Enhanced mental health services for persons mental illnesses eligible for probation.


  • Take advantage of Illinois’ decision to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act to enroll every eligible person in Medicaid. Illinois should specifically focus on insuring that persons with mental illnesses leaving prisons and jails are enrolled in Medicaid.


  • Prison and jails must coordinate with the Departments of Human Services (DHS) and Healthcare and Family Services (DHFS) to create appropriate linkage to community services for every person with a mental illness leaving a prison or jail.   As the Medicaid program moves to managed care, DHFS must contract with managed care entities to insure that they promptly arrange mental health services for persons leaving prisons and jails.
  • DHFS must take advantage of Federal Medicaid waiver programs to fund evidence-based community mental health services.


  • The Illinois Department of Insurance should take aggressive steps to enforce Federal and State parity laws so that persons with private insurance have access to mental health services.


  • Promptly and carefully screen for mental illnesses everyone entering a jail or prison.


  • Provide adequate and humane mental health services in every prison and jail.


  • Prisons and jails must coordinate with DHS and DHFS to insure that persons being effectively treated on psychotropic medications are not forced to switch medications when entering or leaving the criminal justice system.

This is a copy of a recent article on prisons today:

In 2015, the National Lawyers Guild adopted a resolution calling for the dismantling and abolition of all prisons. As an organization, we recognized mass incarceration in all of its iterations—policing, violence, incarceration, forced labor, privatization and capitalism—as a crisis that we must resist in all of our work. Sharlyn Grace, then NLG Co-executive Vice President explained: “Calling for the abolition of this profit-motivated system that is designed to maintain racial and economic inequality while relying on individualized punishment as a primary response to social problems falls directly within our mission of protecting human rights over property interests.”

In the resolution, we commit to supporting grassroots organizing efforts, policy initiatives, and litigation that promotes or moves toward abolition, including the rights and organizing of prisoners, the de-funding and closure of prisons, redirection of prison and policing budgets into social services and re-entry support, legalization of drug use and sex work, release of prisoners serving life without parole and other inhumane sentences, decreased use of solitary confinement, and efforts to prevent construction of new prisons.

Over the past two years, we deepened this commitment by centering our jailhouse lawyer members, providing legal support to the National Prison Strike, organizing actions and events at law schools to call for an end to mass incarceration, and building with allied organizations such as Critical Resistance and Black and Pink to consider and address the inherent contradictions involved in working within the legal system towards a world without prisons. During this time, the problem of mass incarceration in the United States became a mainstream conversation often directly tied to its history of slavery and colonization. Racist policing came to the fore with the Black Lives Matter Movement and President Obama finally called for an end to the use of private prisons. However, mass incarceration continues to be a critical point of struggle in which the NLG works to intervene in various ways.

One aspect of the NLG’s mass incarceration work on a national scale is our connection with “jailhouse lawyers”, which refers to prisoners who learn to advocate for themselves and assist other prisoners in legal matters relating to their sentence, to their conditions in prison, or to civil matters of a legal nature. This is evident through a few different facets. One is our Prison Law Project, which sends out Jailhouse Lawyer Handbooks to prisoners upon request. Another is the work of our Mass Incarceration Committee, which has a group of volunteers who respond to all letters we receive from jailhouse lawyer members ranging from basic legal research to providing case law that is otherwise inaccessible on the inside. We maintain a website and include the column “Beyond Bars” in Guild Notes to highlight the voices of our jailhouse lawyer members, through letters they send describing what it’s like to do legal work behind bars and all the obstacles incurred in the process.  Finally, for the past two years, we have supported recently released jailhouse lawyer members through our Haywood Burns Fellowship Program.

We know that with every victory we have achieved over the decades, backlash can be expected. In 2017, we are facing an entirely different political landscape. Donald Trump was elected on a racist “law and order” campaign platform and immediately ordered a Muslim ban on entry to the United States, mandatory deportation for immigrants charged with minor quality of life offenses, the reinstatement of stop and frisk policing, and three executive orders protecting police officers. One of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ first actions was repealing the Department of Justice’s private prisons memo, as well as threatening to rollback protections for trans and gender non-conforming prisoners.

These are certainly scary times to organize and advocate, yet simultaneously we have seen the power of our communities to come together to resist this administration through a multitude of different strategies. From the mass mobilizations to shut down airports and demand the release of folks being held after the immigration ban to the wave of prisoner strikes and riots to cities committing to continue to provide safety and support to trans and gender non-conforming students in their school districts, we can see that people are ready to fight and resist this administration at every turn.

While we may feel fear, grief, anger and despair at the current conditions we are facing on our political landscape, now is the time for us to practice everyday abolition strategies as we continue to challenge the current fascist regime. This political moment is moving multiple movements into more conversation and strategic alignment, as we all face direct attack. The NLG has experienced a huge increase in donations and members since Trump was elected, demonstrating that there is still a broader commitment to social justice and finding solutions to ending mass incarceration.




In a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, December, 2016
“Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. prison population — 576,000 people — are behind bars with no compelling public safety reason

This report finds the following: • Of the 1.46 million state and federal prisoners, an estimated 39 percent (approximately 576,000 people) are incarcerated with little public safety rationale. They could be more appropriately sentenced to an alternative to prison or a shorter prison stay, with limited impact on public safety. If these prisoners were released, it would result in cost savings of nearly $20 billion per year, and almost $200 billion over 10 years. This sum is enough to employ 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers. It is greater than the annual budgets of the United States Departments of Commerce and Labor combined.33 • Alternatives to prison are likely more effective sentences for an estimated 364,000 lower-level offenders — about 25 percent of the current prison population. Research shows that prison does little to rehabilitate and can increase recidivism in such cases. Treatment, community 8 | Brennan Center for Justice service, or probation are more effective. For example, of the nearly 66,000 prisoners whose most severe crime is drug possession, the average sentence is over one year; these offenders would be better sentenced to treatment or other alternatives.34 • An estimated 212,000 prisoners (14 percent of the total population) have already served sufficiently long prison terms and could likely be released within the next year with little risk to public safety. These prisoners are serving time for the more serious crimes that make up 58 percent of today’s prison population — aggravated assault, murder, nonviolent weapons offenses, robbery, serious burglary, and serious drug trafficking. • Approximately 79 percent of today’s prisoners suffer from either drug addiction or mental illness, and 40 percent suffer from both.35 Alternative interventions such as treatment could be more effective sanctions for many of these individuals.